Runners compete in the annual Comrades Marathon between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Picture: 123RF/ LEON SWART
Runners compete in the annual Comrades Marathon between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Picture: 123RF/ LEON SWART

The Comrades Marathon has been cancelled for the first time since World War 2.

Athletics SA president Aleck Skhosana said the decision to cancel is to protect the health and safety of all concerned because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Cancelling what would have been the 95th edition of the Comrades Marathon was a long and arduous decision to make‚” said Skhosana. “With the race’s rich history‚ its powerful nation-building attributes and contribution towards social cohesion‚ as well as its immense economic impact‚ it would have been premature to rush into an outright cancellation sooner.”

SA entrants will not have their entry fee of R600 refunded while foreign athletes will have the option of deferring their entry fee (R1,500) to 2021 or 2020.

Organisers said the ultra-marathon faced a similar dilemma 80 years ago but a last-minute decision was taken to stage the 20th edition even though World War 2 had started two months earlier. Despite the withdrawal of many runners who had been mobilised for the war effort in 1940‚ the race went ahead with 23 starters and 10 crossing the finishing line.

The following year the race was cancelled and remained so for the duration of the war until 1945.

The cancellation also means the 2021 95th edition will now be the 47th down run and will coincide with celebrations of the centenary of the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA)‚ which was founded on May 24 1921.

Cape Town runner Lynne Etheridge, who had entered to run her fifth Comrades, accepted the situation.

“I'm bitterly disappointed after all the training, but on the other hand a bit relieved because with the lockdown it was difficult to train on your own and in groups.

“Also there have been no races to test yourself in a race situation and get used to running with people all around you. It’s probably best in the long run that it has been cancelled,” she said.

CMA chairperson Cheryl Winn said she had hoped the race would be postponed to September but with the Covid-19 crisis expected to peak in SA in the coming months‚ the organisation was left with no option.

“It is incumbent upon us to prioritise the health‚ safety and wellbeing of our athletes‚” she said.

Winn reassured runners on a number of practical issues‚ advising that CMA will deal with the roughly 2,500 foreign and 25‚000 SA entries received for the 2020 Comrades Marathon as follows:

• SA entrants (including the 485 who entered during the recent substitution period) will not be refunded their entry fee. They will however receive a T-shirt, goody bag and Comrades badge and flash.

• Foreign runners will have their entries deferred to 2021 or 2022 or they will have the option of substituting their 2020 entry to 2021.

• Runners who completed their first Comrades on the 2019 up run will qualify for the back-to-back medal upon completion of the 2021 down run.

“Sad as it is‚ we can now turn our focus towards the staging of our centenary celebrations next year in the comfort of knowing we can rely on the passionate loyalty and participation of so many,” said Winn. /Additional reporting Ian Sadler